Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Of technical images, with Vilém Flusser

In essence, technical images represent the end of writing, in at least two senses. They are its polar opposites; and they put an end to the domination of writing as such. This is, in essence, Flusser's theory. To better understand it, one needs to see what’s specific to each of the two forms of expression/notation. And that’s where I’m going now.


Source: Miguel Frias

I've already discussed, last week and to a lesser extent the week before, that to Flusser writing is historical in the sense of its generating historical consciousness by means of linearity. With writing, the World (that terrible chaos that presents itself as our constant embarrassment) is returned to us ordered. But ordered in a special way. Ordered like the files and ranks of an army, like the wires between two telegraph poles, like the trajectory of an arrow about to hit its target. In other words, like the lines of a written text. Although I placed them first, the metaphors preceding this last sentence are the results of writing, not its models. Writing allows us to see the straightness of all these trajectories because, with writing, we have become accustomed to the paradigm of the line. Understanding, reasoning, logic, historical consciousness, etc. etc. – all these are manifestations of straightness.
The least we can say about this way of ordering is that it has transformed the World as well as our understanding of it.
But writing is not exempt from the tests of dialectics. Its rise to dominance implies some kind of fall as well. The fall may not be fully visible now, when we’re at the very beginning of a major transformation. It may never turn out to be a complete, deep, catastrophic fall. But we can’t turn a blind eye to the fact that writing is taking new forms, and that, more than anything else, it is losing ground. Of course, letting go of writing is not an easy task. Writing has been (and still is) one of our closest companions. We have built civilizations based on it. We have glorified and tortured, eradicated and constructed, invited and enforced – with writing on the topmast.

Apparatuses of transformation

But if letting go must happen, in the name of what can we be said to be letting go of writing? Flusser proposes technical images. Technical images, unlike writing, are not linear. The page of a book reads from top left corner to bottom right; or from top right to bottom left; horizontally or vertically. No matter which script is used, the principle is the same: we go about it in a straight line.
This, however, doesn’t apply to images. Images are meant to be taken as a whole. There is no linear reading of a photograph. One doesn’t start from the top left corner and proceeds to arrive at the bottom right corner.
Unlike writing, which is concerned with lines, images are concerned with surfaces. And this is a fundamental difference. But a difference that’s not so striking if we think that, in fact, representation has been making use of images for a long time. Since way before the emergence of writing, to be more precise. The caves of Lascaux are there to prove it.
So the question arises: what’s so special about technical images? What sets them apart from other visual artefacts?
Flusser focuses on one type of image: photography.

Source: Lilip Studio

Now, of course, the immediate thought crossing one’s mind in relation to photography must be something about its indexical value. Indexicality means that a photograph points at an actual object in a way similar to how the index finger does it; and it does so more prominently than, say, painting. A photographer takes a picture of something. Something that exists exactly the way it appears in the picture that’s been taken. Painting, which is also a representation of something, transforms the object. The work of the artist is apparent in every brushstroke, in every conscious use of perspective, of shadows, of composition in general. Of course, a photographer (and a filmmaker more so!) can do all this him/herself, and with relative ease. So this is not where the fundamental difference between painting and photography lies. To Flusser, the actual difference resides in the fact that the camera is a coded apparatus. Realistic as it may seem (a snippet of reality, as the cliché goes), a photograph is the result of the operations inherent in the camera. Images taken by a photographer will be dependent on the mechanical (and more recently, digital) processes made possible by the camera they’re using.
One may argue that something similar happens in the case of painting; that painting, like photography, requires certain material preconditions in order to exist. Yes, but painting preserves the human factor. Errors in painting are completely due to the artist’s application of the material preconditions. Too much colour here, mistaken application of shadows there, there’s a plethora of possibilities where a painter can go wrong. In photography (where the human remains relevant, no doubt), a large proportion of the possible errors are due to the range of operations built into the camera, and over which the user has no control. An experienced photographer will be able to apply the right apertures to the right photographic situations; but they will not be able to overcome the fact that the camera has only this many types of aperture.
So here’s the fundamental rupture. When we use a photographic camera it is not the apparatus becoming an extension of us (which is the classic understanding of technology at large) but us becoming an extension of it. When we press the button of a camera we enable the coded possibilities built into the apparatus to come to fruition. We serve the camera. We help it come to the realization of its potential, of the specific possibilities extant in its code. And that doesn’t quite happen in the case of painting.

With algorithms we jump into post-humanity

With this in mind it’s becoming easier, I think, to see how the latest optical technologies (analogue or digital) are forms of this general subjection to an apparatus. I don’t mean this in a dystopian sense, as the robot that takes over; but rather in the sense of a development whereby the human has vacated its own creation, like a Deus Otiosus that will only return, if ever, in order to punish the independence given to his creation. (Remember the biblical story of the fall?)
Algorithms are a crucial illustration of all of the above; an example Flusser did not have the chance to discuss (he died in 1991, so all of the 21st-century technologies we’re using nowadays were unknown to him; although he had a fairly good understanding of how an algorithm works).
Digital algorithms take the coding of the camera to a whole new level. They don’t even need our hand to press their buttons. There’s no button for algorithms. The functions of a button are, once again, scripted into the code. And so, apart from the initial turning-on, an algorithm needs no further human input. An algorithm is built to work in its own terms, after its own script, automated to process information (data) by applying ad infinitum the functions written in its code.

Source: Dark Government

The difference between the code of a camera and the code of an algorithm is simple: while with the former we used the apparatus ignoring (not noticing) the code but hoping to be able to control the results, with the latter we are fully aware of the code but no longer in control of the results. What’s more, we are also fully aware that there’s nothing we can do in order to stop the algorithm. Nothing but the ultimate solutions: shutting it down.
So mechanical cameras and digital codes have this thing in common: the repositioning of the human element. The human is no longer at the center of production of artefacts but at the periphery. That’s why ‘post-humanism’ is such a catchphrase nowadays.
The post-human is – due to no simple coincidence – also a post-writing. Of course, writing hasn’t been completely eliminated from the picture (my pun!). We are still deeply immersed in the linearity that’s been guiding our consciousness for thousands of years. Binary code, which stands at the foundation of the digital world, is itself arranged according to the logic of the line. Not only is it written in lines that start in the top left corner and advance towards the bottom right corner; it is also constructed in accordance to a linear causality between code and operation: code is teleologically written, so as to lead to a result visible in a computer operation.
Flusser has pointed out the fact that no definite separation from linear writing is possible as long as we keep thinking and organizing ourselves according to the principles of linearity. I’m not even sure that we should be aiming towards a complete annihilation. That kind of radicalism would verge dangerously on suicide. But major changes are taking place. Of course they can’t be sudden and complete. But they are here, they are questioning the grounds of writing. Two examples of these changes, in which the algorithm reigns supreme, are Google Earth and soft cinema. I’ll discuss them next week. So we’ll see.